Natural Dyes

by Callie B.

After reading Rebecca Burgess’ book, Havesting Color,  Annie and I were eager to try natural dyeing. Especially because a large number of the plants listed in the book grow right here on Sunny Lea Farm.  We tried several plants, but goldenrod, coreopsis and pokeberries were the most satisfactory.

The goldenrod was very abundant and also quick to gather, we simply cut off the flowering tops. The coreopsis was more time consuming  because we  picked the individual  blooms off the stems.

Dyeing with plants is quite easy. You fill a large pot with water, heat it to a simmer, add your plants and let it cook until the water reaches the color you want, then strain out the plant matter and add your fiber, simmering the pot again until the fiber is the desired shade.

Many dyes also require a mordant, such as vinegar, cooking alum, or iron. You boil water, add the mordant, then turn down to a simmer,  add your fiber, and leave it for an hour. Once mordanted, the fiber absorbs and retains color better. Also, mordants can alter colors. For example, Iron “saddens”  them. Annie mordanted  the fiber for dyeing with  goldenrod and coreopsis in cooking alum, which is supposed to brighten colors.

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The Gathering Basket

We used a hotplate on the porch; dyeing is kind of smelly, and very messy!

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Our Cooking Station

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I didn’t get a picture of the coreopisis,  a small yellow flower that  made an orange dye. Magical, right?  I was slightly skeptical when we were picking the blooms, but as you can see it worked:

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Coreopsis dyed yarn


My favorite was the poke berry dye. Ooh la la!  It was pretty!!

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Poke berries

Picking poke berries was very messy, and it took a while to gather enough for dyeing because the weight ratio of berry to fiber was 25:1 (compare that to the ratio for coreopsis which was 1:1).

For the  poke berries I used vinegar as a mordant, and then simmered the prepared fiber in the poke berry juice. It came out a pretty rose:

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Poke berry yarn, hot dye bath

However, I was doubtful that it would be very colorfast, and wanted a darker color. I found several awesome posts by Dre at Grackle and Sun about dyeing with poke berries in a cold fermentation bath, which yeilds a darker more colorfast result. I put some poke berries in jar for a month-okay, maybe a little longer, I kinda forgot about them- added the fiber,  waited a week, and…….


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Poke berry yarn, cold dye bath

According to Dre’s experiments,  hot dye baths give you a redder tone, and cold dye baths a more purple tone. So cool!!

There are many variables in dyeing. You can use different pots to alter colors; for example copper pots brighten them.  Even the type of  water makes a difference!

As we come into Fall, the dye plants are, well, dieing. But I look forward to more experimenting next year, and will be spinning fiber for just that purpose in the meantime.